The boy slunk into the hut with the guilty air of a thief. The door creaked closed behind him, barely muffling the noise of the night outside, and his heart all but stopped when the latch finally clicked into place.
But the room remained dark and still, and for a moment, he thought he had made it. Then a voice from the next room, the only other room in the house, called out, with no respect for the silence,
"Taryn! That you? What're you doing creeping in so late? We were worried."
"Sorry, Mama," he said, heading through the doorway, towards the voice. It was too dark to see, but he knew by habit where everything was, and he made his way to where his his straw-stuffed mattress lay on the floor. He resisted the urge to look back at the door.
It's fine, he told himself. It never even saw me.
There was shuffling in the dark, and he could just barely make out the shape of his mother in the mattress beside his.
"Are you alright?" his mother said, this time more quietly. "You don't sound right."
Taryn flinched. How did she always seem to know that sort of thing?
"I'm fine, Mama," he said.
But still his mother stayed, turned towards him, uneasy, until she seemed to make up her mind and scoot closer beside him. She didn't ask, and neither did he, but he allowed himself to be wrapped in her arms. On the other side of her, on his own mattress, Uncle Pat was snoring.
The only window in the room, which was nothing more than a small hole in the wall with a shutter, was open. It was warm enough out now that it didn't need to be closed all the time, and as his eyes adjusted to the darkness, Taryn stared at the window in dread, half expecting to see a menacing silhouette peering back at him, but there was nothing but a star-dotted sky, and part of the thatch roof blocking the view.
And there in the little hut, with his mother beside him and Uncle Pat snoring comfortingly nearby, the encounter earlier became too unreal to take seriously, as though it had happened in a dream or story. Finally, he allowed himself to rest.
* * * * *
For a brief, shining time the next morning, he had forgotten the previous day's encounter. Then over breakfast, his mother said,
"Taryn, where's your rod?"
His spoonful of porridge stopped before it reached his mouth, and it all came flooding back to him. The creek. The trout he'd caught, and how proud he'd been of it. The dead man on the deer path on the way home. The iron spike in his bloodless chest.
"Must've left it at the creek," he said, knowing full well that it was probably still on the deer path, fallen and lost in the tall grass with the trout.
"Careless," his uncle said with a sniff.
"Sorry, Uncle Pat."
"Now now," said his mother, piling the last of the porridge into his bowl. "You can always retrace your walk. Or make a new one."
"Yes, Mama," he said.
"You'll need a haircut, soon," Pat said.
"Nonsense," said Taryn's mother. Taryn felt his head anxiously. "He's too young still."
"You're mad, woman," said Pat with a sad shake of his head. "Still buying that superstitious nonsense."
"Am I big enough I need to cut my hair, Mama?" he said, anxiety about the dead man forgotten.
"Not yet, you aren't," said his mother.
He sighed and poked at his oatmeal, dejected.
She saw him and said, "don't pick at it, eat it. The more you eat, the faster you'll grow. Then when you're big enough, you can get your hair cut.
That was motivation enough; Taryn scarfed down the remainder of the bowl while Pat shook his head.
"Tansia," he said, "you and your nonsense."
But she ignored him.
"Before you find your rod," she said instead, looking at Taryn, "make sure you see to the geese and box all the hens' eggs. Your uncle and I are going to town later today."
Which meant, he knew, that they needed everything they were going to sell prepared and loaded up.
"Yes, Mama," Taryn said.
"We'll be gone two days," Mama said. "But Hadey and Silv will be by tomorrow to pick up their eggs, so if there's any trouble, they'll be there to help you. They'll like as not bring Casey, too, so you two can play for a bit."
Taryn smiled at the thought. Then he finished breakfast in three more hurried gulps, and went out to do his chores.
* * * * *
The land they lived on wasn't very big. It was small and scraggly, with a bit of woods on it that was too sparse and small to be of value to anybody, and it was right next to the local lord's forest, which meant that they got a lot of foresters from the lodge coming by to check and make sure they weren't poaching, but it was theirs, a fact that uncle Pat drilled into his head every time the subject came up. They weren't serfs like everyone else around was, he would say. For all that it was a nothing little patch of dirt, by God, it was their patch of dirt.
Privately, Taryn thought Uncle Pat only made such a fuss about it all because he was envious. Their land wasn't a real farm, like the big ones up north that belonged to the lord, the ones that needed a hundred people to take care of. They couldn't grow anything useful, or enough of it to make much money-- and Uncle Pat had tried. The best they could do was the apple grove-- ten sad little trees with unnaturally white bark, so that nobody in the village would ever buy their preserves or jams made with it for fear of haunting-- and the birds.
Ducks, geese, and chickens, but mostly ducks.
"Hello, everyone!" Taryn said, throwing open the door to the duck house.
Eager quacking and honking rose to greet him as the dozen ducks and geese inside the small hut rushed underfoot in their hurry to leave. Carefully, he stepped past them to check for eggs.
Unlike the hens, who laid in orderly boxes, the ducks tended to leave haphazard nests everywhere and laid their eggs where they felt like it, so he had to go hunting, checking on top of and behind the bales of hay. A few ducks were brooding, so he let them be, but most nests were free, and by the end he had scooped up two dozen eggs for the market.
It was an unusual thing to have waterfowl in their area. But most people in their area didn’t have the water to care for them, or any way to keep them from flying off in the winter. Uncle Pat had solved the second problem, many years ago having bought a special breed of brown duck and white goose that could not truly fly, only hop and flap impressively.
The problem of water never came up; there was a pond on their property, fed by a stream that came from the creek, which far enough away came from the great big river that ran past the village, along the main road, into the towns to the north, all the way up to the mountains where it was fed with snowmelt. There was a small copse of trees on the south end of the pond, but they weren't large enough to hide any predator that would threaten a human. They were, however, big enough for duck-sized threats, so it was Taryn's job most days to play shepherd for the birds. While he did, he didn’t have much else to do but think about their pond and the chain it came from. Sometimes when Taryn thought about it too long, his head hurt.
All that work, just to wind up at their little goose pond.
Mama and Pat never found this as amazing as he did, so he kept it to himself whenever he thought it. His uncle had said, don't be silly when Taryn had tried to tell him, once. The water went other places too, Pat said; the creek still creeked along past where it split into the stream, and the main river kept rivering past where it split into the creek, so like as not, there were lots of lakes and ponds connected to it.
But if anything, that made it worse. Their little pond had family all over the place-- certainly more family than Taryn had. Their little pond had roots all the way up north, probably in the capital itself. Mayors and judges and noblemen and maybe even the king himself had looked at their river, which turned into a creek, which turned into a stream, which turned into their pond. Their pond had a pedigree. Their geese could be swimming in water the king himself had looked at-- or gone in! Did the king ever fish? Were any of the fish in their pond fish that had narrowly avoided the rod of the king?
And now, as Taryn surveyed the area, making sure it was safe for the birds to swim, he saw that there was a dead duck in the pond.
It wasn’t one of theirs, which was a relief. This was some green-headed duck from the wild, though it gave him a pang to look at it. If only the wild ducks were smart enough to get a human to watch out for them, he thought. Taryn had never let any of his ducks die. The geese-- well. Those were another story entirely, but his ducks were the safest in the world.
With a sigh, he sat on a sitting log Pat had rolled close to the pond, and scrunched up his loose pant legs, tying them up with some string he kept in his pocket. For a moment, he considered kicking off his sandals, then decided against it; there might be things in there he didn't want to step on, and it wasn't like the water ever harmed anything, anyways. He grabbed a long stick and waded in.
I'm wading in the king's water, he thought, making his way through the marshy water grass. Entirely too soon, he was up to his knees, then his hips in the chilly water. But the bird was at last within reach, and he prodded it with the stick, trying to get it close.
I am poking a dead duck out of the king's water.
The dead duck skimmed towards the back edge of the pond and landed in the marshy grass there. Taryn watched it, wondering if it was too waterlogged to eat, and if his mother and Pat could still sell it. Then, a darkness moved in the copse of trees.
He froze, still chest-deep in the pond.
A soft wind rippled over the water, coming from the south. It pushed the duck back towards him, and though he still watched the trees, searching for movement, he still grabbed the duck by the neck when it came near.
In the thicket, the leaves moved in the breeze, shifting the shadows with them, but nothing else seemed to be there. All the same, the fear remained, the prey-like instinct torn between holding still until the danger had passed, or to run recklessly away, back to the hut.
A chill ran down Taryn's back and, fighting both urges, he backed slowly away, his eyes fastened on the copse.
Then a voice called out, breaking the silence.
"Taryn!" his uncle called.
As though breaking some spell, he was able to tear his eyes away. "Coming!" he shouted.
He waded to shore, casting one last doubtful glance at the trees, but whatever fear there had been was gone, and there was nothing in the thicket but shadows.
Pat and his mother were readying the cart and Nenny, the little donkey when he approached.
"Taryn," his mother said as he came up. "You've gotten all wet."
"I fell in the pond," he said. "There was a dead duck."
He lifted the unfortunate mallard and handed it to Pat. It was just beginning to stiffen, though he saw no wounds or reason it should have died
Pat examined it for a moment and said, "The meat’s no good for anything but attracting predators. I'll take it, and maybe Fletcher can do something with the feathers."
He put it on the cart with the rest of the cargo, then hopped into the drivers side.
“Goodbye, honey,” said his mother, wrapping him in a hug. “Stay safe, and do your chores.”
“Yes, Mama,” said Taryn, still smushed against her.
“I left a basket of eggs inside for Hadey when she comes by.”
Finally, she released him and climbed up beside Pat.
“Don’t make a mess!” Pat called. He tugged on Nenny’s reigns, stirring her to walk.
“Bye, Ma! Bye, Pat!” Taryn said, waving.
And he watched them go until they were so far down the road, he could no longer see them. Only then did he turn back to face the farm, filled with a newfound sense of determination.
He spent the rest of the day guarding the ducks and geese like a hawk and having imaginary sword fights, pretending what he would do if some threat did come to the farm. Taryn imagined himself wrestling a wolf like the heroes in the stories Mama told him, and how surprised and proud she and Pat would be when they saw him tanning its fur upon their return.
I did it myself, he would say. See mama? I'm big enough to cut my hair after all. Nothing can get me!
When that grew old, he sang songs he'd heard, and wondered if Casey would come the next day with his parents, or if Miska and her mother would drop by for eggs as they sometimes did. And when the wind turned chill, but the sun began had not yet began to set, he expertly herded the geese and ducks back to their shed, losing none in the flock, but double and triple-counting them to be sure.
Once his charges were in bed, he took it upon himself to make the place as spic and span as possible. He weeded the small vegetable garden Pat was trying to grow, beat the dust out of the old rug that normally lay where they slept, scrubbed the stone hearth, and when that was done, he went out to the woodshed to get some firewood.
The sun was almost gone, painting the sky in shades of pinks and oranges.
The woodshed was half full. Taryn wondered if he should spend time tomorrow filling it, and then thought of how impressed Pat and Mama would be if he did. They would have their whole winter ready, all because of him.
The thought lifted his spirits further, and he vowed that he'd spend all the next day chopping and drying wood for storage. So pleased was he with the thought that he decided to try taking in three pieces of firewood into the hut. He balanced them in his arms as best he could and turned towards the hut--
--And ran straight into the elf.
The elf loomed over him, head down, face partially hidden by shadows.
It looked, Taryn thought distantly, much like it had yesterday on the road. Its black hair was braided and ran long down its back. Its clothing was mostly green, red, and brown. Its ears were still pointed.
But there were differences, too. Differences he took in in an instant. The fact that its skin no longer had the uncanny pallor of death. The lack of an iron rod in its chest.
"You have saved my life," it said, its voice harsh.
Finally, it looked him in the eyes. Taryn drew in a sharp breath; more than any other strange and unnatural part of his guest, the eyes were what struck him most. They shone, as though filled with some internal light that was just barely contained, like seeing candlelight through thin paper. They were gold in color-- not brown like Mama’s, or hazel like Casey’s, but light and gleaming gold, as though crafted by some impossible jeweler.
They were beautiful. They were endless. And they were angry.
If there had been a way out, Taryn would have run. If there had been a place to hide, he would have hid. But there was the shed to the side, and the firewood stack, and the elven lord was standing between him and the hut. He tried to speak, and nothing came out.
But the lord just stood there, silently hating him.
"You're welcome?" Taryn finally managed.
The elf's face twisted in rage, and he drew his sword. For a moment, Taryn was certain he was about to die-- a thought too fast, too certain to have much fear attached to it, and he squeezed his eyes shut. There was a rush of air and motion beside him, and a loud, splintering noise, and finally the faintest touch of cold against the side of his face.
He shivered uncontrollably, unable to stop, but there was no more noise or movement. Seconds crawled by, and eventually he had to look.
The sword was pierced into the wall of the shed behind him, just next to his head. The coldness he had felt had been the blade brushing against his cheek. And still, the elf was glaring at him.
"Is that all you have to say?" it snarled.
Taryn bolted. He chucked the wood at the elf and, while it was momentarily distracted, he ducked past, then he was sprinting, leaping with practiced ease over the fence and and running with fear-fueled speed. The way to the hut was no option; the lord was too close. Instead, he ran to the duck house and slammed the door behind him.
The ducks were settled abed, nestled in their individual places, and though some quacked in protest at his presence, most were silent, used to him checking on them constantly. He picked his way past them and into the corner of the shed, into a small nook hidden by a bale of hay on one side, and the failed nest-boxes on the other. Quickly, he scraped together some of the hay on the floor to better hide himself, and then he curled up, struggling to quiet his breathing.
He tried to think of the stories he’d heard of the elves, the Fair Folk, the Gentry, and came back with nothing good. They were cold. They were cruel. They were incapable of lying outright, but that didn’t matter; they could twist words to mean anything--
There came the sound of boots crunching outside, and he knew, knew the lord was circling the duck house.
That was the other thing, he knew. Once they had set their mind to a thing, they were hard to dissuade.
The door flew open with enough force to dislodge several ducks. The noise of birds filled the air, and the elf lord entered.
He left the door wide open, and when it walked through the duck house, it made no attempt to avoid them. Taryn heard the noise of several ducks being startled awake, and even through his fear of the elf, he had room to worry about the ducks getting loose.
For a second, he clung to the desperate hope that maybe it wouldn’t find him, hidden as he was, but then the the elf began pulling away the stacked bales of hay. It lifted them as though they were nothing, and threw them carelessly to the side with enough force to crack the wooden walls.
Then there was nothing between him and the elf lord.
It looked down at him with all the enthusiasm of someone examining a dead rat. Then, to Taryn’s astonishment, it dropped to one knee, directly across from him. The hay beneath them crunched, and all Taryn could think was how fortunate it had been that he had cleaned the shed out earlier that day, else the elf would have been kneeling in duck leavings.
"Make your demands," it said, its voice icy.
Taryn flinched at the sound, though he found the courage to say, “What?"
The lord sounded as though it was speaking through gritted teeth.
"Speak. Your. Demands."
"I-- I don't-- I--"
"Do I owe my life to a fool?" the lord suddenly shouted. It surged upwards, and Taryn fell backwards, afraid. He scuttled through the hay, and the lord strode after him, chasing him into the opposite corner. "Cease your deception and speak what you wish of me!"
"I don't want anything!" Taryn near-screamed, him voice shrill. "I don't! I swear it!"
He'd hoped the elf would be satisfied and leave-- oh gods, would that it leave!-- but this seemed to only enrage it further.
"You saved my life!" it snarled. It brought the tip of the sword to Taryn's throat and let the point rest just below his chin. "Why?"
"Because!" he said, voice shrill with panic. "You were hurt!"
"Answer my question!"
"I did! I am!" Whatever hold that had been choking his voice lifted, and the words poured out of him.
"You-- You were hurt, and you weren't moving, and I thought you were dead, and-- and I've never seen a dead body before so I went to see, and you were an elf, and I'd never seen one of those before either, and I thought you were dead and I was going to tell Mama, but then I saw the iron spike and I know elves don't like iron and I thought it would help if I took it out, so I did, and then you coughed and started breathing so I knew you were alive, and I remember Casey told me about the family near Kavrish and what happened to them when they messed with a Gentry and I got scared and ran away 'cause I don't want to die. I don't want to die."
He was crying. He couldn't stop. Hot tears streamed down his face and his nose was stuffed, meaning he had to gape-breathe through his mouth like an air-drowned fish. He closed his eyes, trying to stop them, and failed.
"Please don't kill my ma," he croaked. "Please. Please don't kill them. I'm sorry, I'm sorry! I won't do it again! Please don't hurt them."
Slowly, the sword fell from his throat. He cracked open one eye and thought his vision was blurry with tears, he could see the elf looking at him, and for the first time, its expression held something other than contempt.
"Are you truly so ignorant?" it said, stunned. "Do you truly have no notion of what you have done?"
He squeezed his eyes close. "I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry--"
And again, his voice failed him.
For a long while, he sat there, crying and sobbing and shivering. Instinctively, he brought his knees up to his chin and covered his head with his arms, as though attempting to hide, and nothing stopped him.
"Enough of your weeping," the lord said eventually. It sounded less angry now, and more tired. "I tire of your noise. Name the terms of my service."
Taryn sniffed. "What?"
"I cannot speak any plainer! What will you have of me?"
Finally, the lord's words managed to fit their way through Taryn's ears. Had he not been so afraid and stuffed up from crying, he would have laughed at the ridiculousness of it.
"I want you to go away!" he gasped. "Go away, and don't come back."
The lord's face darkened. "So that I may remain indebted to you eternally? So that I may forever have my honor stained?"
They way he spoke told Taryn more than anything that those were killing offenses. "No, no!" he said. "Not like that!"
"Then what?" the elf shouted. "What desire have you that would equal the life of an Elven lord? Tell me now so that I may be free of you!"
"I don't-- I--"
He was shaking again, so much now that even his teeth were chattering. There was no use, he realized. No matter what he said, the elf would still be mad at him. It would still yell at him about things he didn't understand, and in the end it would kill him, just like the one that killed the Kavrish family. Maybe it was the same one.
"Enough." the lord snapped. "If you will not name your terms, then I will fulfill my duty to the satisfaction of my standards until you do."
With that, he grabbed Taryn’s arm and yanked him to his feet. He dragged him through the open duck house door, and towards the pond.
For one frantic moment, Taryn was certain the lord was going to drown him, but then an enormous, shaggy deer stepped out from the copse by the pond, stunning white and far larger than any deer Taryn had seen before. The lord dragged him towards the deer, its gauntlets digging into his arm painfully.
"No!" Taryn shouted, trying to pry its fingers off him. "Let me go! Where are you taking me?"
"To my home," it said.
"You will be tended to," it hissed, spitting the words like venom. "You will be kept secure, you will have a place to sleep, and you will be fed."
That sounded, Taryn realized, like an apt description of prison. He fought harder, shouting and kicking, screaming to be let go. The lord, apparently tiring of this, yanked him suddenly forward, off his feet. As he stumbled, the lord plucked him up, hefting him over its shoulder as though he were a sack of potatoes. A light sack.
Still he fought, kicking uselessly in the air and hitting the lord's shoulders. The elf leapt easily onto the waiting deer, even with one arm keeping Taryn secure, and with a word of command, the deer sped towards the trees.
And in a strange shifting of the world, there wasn’t just a small copse of trees ahead of them, there was an entire forest, filled with towering trees that dwarfed the ones in the copse. The last thing he saw before the forest blocked his view was the thatched roof of their hut vanishing over the crown of the hill.